One of my favorite hymns, Amazing Grace was made even more special for me a few years ago when I heard my daughter-in-law perform it, a cappella, during a very touching ceremony to recognize fallen Civil War era soldiers. I will never forget how beautiful her voice sounded as it echoed off the tall buildings downtown as a horse-drawn wagon passed carrying a flag draped casket.
I received a link to a video of a performance of Amazing Grace by Wintley Phipps, in one of the most profound performances I have heard. It made chills run up my back, and brought tears to my eyes, as I felt the Spirit and visualized the setting this hymn came from. I think you will enjoy it, too.
Wintley Phipps is an ordained Seventh Day Aventist minister, world-renowned vocal artist, and president of the US Dream Academy. He also founded Songs of Freedom Publishing Company and Coral Records Recording Company. Mr. Phipps has been the featured speaker and performer at many notable occasions around the world. Additional videos can be found just by searching on his name. He currently serves as Pastor of a church in Palm Bay, Florida.
If you aren’t familiar with the slave-ship-captain-turned-evangelist John Henry Newton, there is a lot of interesting information on him on Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia. He was the author of many hymns, including Amazing Grace. He was born in London, the son of a shipmaster in the Mediterranean service. At the age of 11 he went to sea with his father and sailed with him on a total of six voyages.
In 1743, he was pressed into naval service, and became a midshipman. After attempting to desert, Newton was put in irons, court martialed, and received a flogging of eight dozen lashes. He went on to become enslaved himself before being freed by a friend of his father’s.
Sailing back to England in 1748 aboard the slave-ship Greyhound on the Atlantic, the ship encountered a severe storm and almost sank. Newton awoke in the middle of the night and prayed to God as the ship filled with water. It was this experience which he later marked as the beginnings of his conversion to evangelical Christianity. He later said that his true conversion did not happen until some time later: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”
Still, he didn’t renounce the slave trade until later in his life when he wrote a tract decrying it in aid of abolitionist sympathies. He only gave up seafaring and his slave-trading activities in 1754, after a serious illness.
Much later he published his thoughts about the African slave trade, which is quoted here:
“With our ships, the great object is, to be full. When the ship is there, it is thought desirable she should take as many as possible. The cargo of a vessel of a hundred tons, or little more, is calculated to purchase from two hundred and twenty to two hundred and fifty slaves. Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys, and the women), besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle, for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship, close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close that the shelf would not, easily, contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down, among the men, to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost.
“Let it be observed, that the poor creatures, thus cramped for want of room, are likewise in irons, for the most part both hands and feet, and two together, which makes it difficult for them to turn or move, to attempt either to rise or to lie down, without hurting themselves, or each other. Nor is the motion of the ship, especially her heeling, or stoop on one side, when under sail, to be omitted; for this, as they lie athwart, or cross the ship, adds to the uncomfortableness of their lodging, especially to those who lie on the leeward or leaning side of the vessel.”
John Newton went on to study theology, and went on to pastor churches and was also a prolific hymnist. So popular was his preaching that the church he pastored in Olney for 16 years had a gallery added to accommodate the large numbers who flocked to hear him. In 1767 William Cowper, the poet, moved to Olney, worshipped at Newton’s church, and collaborated with Newton on producing a volume of hymns, called Olney Hymns. This work had a great influence on English hymnology. The volume included Newton’s well -known hymns “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken”, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds!”, “Come, My Soul, Thy Suit Prepare”, “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy-seat”, and “Amazing Grace”.
What a blessing it is, to listen to this performance, and experience anew the thrill of God’s love!